Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Cronenberg Month Quick Picks and Pans

Spider (2002) Director David Cronenberg and writer Patrick McGrath (who also wrote the novel the film is based upon) present an intricately woven study of a profoundly disturbed man, played by Ralph Fiennes. After spending years in an asylum, Spider is released into the custody of a boarding house. The title refers to the main character’s nickname, but it serves as an apt metaphor for the tangled psychological web he weaves. As the character delves into his troubled childhood and layers of his psyche are slowly revealed (Cronenberg made a point of never mentioning the word “schizophrenia”), we’re left to speculate whether the events in the film occurred, or if they’re fabrications of Spider’s mind. Spider features all-around excellent performances by a stellar cast, including Fiennes, Miranda Richardson (in three roles) and Gabriel Byrne, as Spider’s absentee father Bill. It explores mental illness, as experienced through a protagonist with an unreliable perspective, challenging us to re-examine the events as they unfold.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

eXistenZ (1999) With the push toward increasingly sophisticated game systems, this film seems more relevant now, compared to when it debuted, more than 20 years ago. Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as famous video game designer Allegra Geller and Jude Law (sporting a Canadian accent) plays Ted Pikul, a young marketing employee/bodyguard by proxy. During a test run of Allegra’s newest game “Existenz” (an immersive experience that jacks directly into the user’s nervous system), a would-be assassin attempts to eradicate her. Allegra and Ted successfully flee the botched assassination attempt, only to find themselves evading malevolent forces that are out to get them and her game.

eXistenZ features some inspired, grotesque creations (including an organic game system that’s connected to an umbilicus and breathes, along with a gun constructed of small animal carcasses that shoots human teeth), but it’s more than a Cronenberg freak show. The film effortlessly flits back and forth between the virtual and real worlds, as Allegra and Ted enter the distorted reality of eXistenZ (many of the conceits within the universe of eXistenZ may seem second nature to those familiar with the conventions of modern games). Are they playing a game, or is the game playing them? We’re never quite sure, right up until the film’s conclusion.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray (Region B), DVD and Hoopla

Naked Lunch (1991) “Exterminate all rational thought,” says main character Bill Lee (Peter Weller), an appropriate sentiment for this frustrating, intriguing film, loosely based on William S. Burrough’s semi-autobiographical novel. The impressive cast includes Judy Davis in a dual role, Ian Holm and Roy Scheider, all of whom seem to be game with whatever director/writer Cronenberg throws at them. After Bill (a pest exterminator hooked on “bug powder”) accidentally shoots and kills his wife (in an incident paralleling a real-life incident in the author’s life), he finds himself steeped in intrigue and conspiracy. Soon, he’s in a foreign land, guided by the shadowy agents of Interzone, while coming to grips with his sexual ambiguity (I think). Among the visual highlights are the truly inspired and repulsive Chris Walas creature effects, including typewriters that become beetles, and the humanoid Mugwumps, spurting bodily fluids from their heads (don’t ask). Howard Shore’s frenetic, jazzy score fits the film’s discordant themes perfectly. At the end of the day, I’m stuck in a Schrödinger's cat sort of dilemma, with opposing impressions of the film. I admired the craftsmanship and performances, but couldn’t invest myself in the characters or their situations. Naked Lunch remains as distant and unfathomable as ever, a triumph of style and mood over coherence.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Crash (1996) Not to be confused with the 2004 Paul Haggis movie with the same name, writer/director David Cronenberg (working from a novel by J.G. Ballard) explores kink and bodily transformation, within the milieu of automobile accidents. After a near-fatal car crash, a film director (James Spader) experiences a re-birth of sorts. Along with another car crash survivor (Holly Hunter), they get their kicks at an underground club, hosted by Vaughan (Elias Koteas) a man with a masochistic streak (or as he describes it, “the re-shaping of the human body by modern technology.”) and a flair for the dramatic. Along with stunt drivers, he stages recreations of famous car crashes (i.e., James Dean’s deadly 1955 car accident). Vaughan and the individuals in the club keep raising the stakes to gain sexual satisfaction. The film becomes little more than one ugly scene after another, hammering the theme of car crashes as a metaphor for sex, with two bodies merging together in one violative act. The net result is reductive and off-putting, in one of Cronenberg’s least accessible (or defensible) films.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

Maps to the Stars (2014) David Cronenberg’s latest (and to date, last) feature film explores the dark side of Hollywood, and the ephemeral quality of fame. It could be regarded as his answer to Day of the Locust (hint: see that film instead), but it’s a big disappointment, with stale social commentary that’s neither insightful nor novel. Almost everyone in the film is morally bankrupt, masking their true intentions and giving us no one to connect with. Julianne Moore stars as Havana Segrand, a narcissistic, has-been diva, haunted by her late mother’s notoriety. Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a self-help guru, father to a vindictive, washed up child star son Benjie (Evan Bird) and estranged to his self-destructive, schizophrenic daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). It’s a distancing, unpleasant experience that only made me want to watch more of Cronenberg’s earlier work.

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Fast Company

(1979) Directed by David Cronenberg; Written by David Cronenberg, Phil Savath and Courtney Smith; Starring: William Smith, Claudia Jennings, John Saxon, Nicholas Campbell, Don Francks, Cedric Smith and Judy Foster; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

Fast Company to me is really business as usual. It is an expression of something that I was very passionate about and remain passionate about, even though it doesn’t seem to correlate easily or critically with my other movies.” – David Cronenberg (from DVD commentary)

Fast Company, set in the cutthroat world of auto racing, is one of the most un-Cronenbergian (Is that a word?) titles in David Cronenberg’s filmography, wedged between more typical fare, Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979). Cronenberg’s tale of grit, business, sex and deceit on the funny car racing circuit was financed largely on Canadian tax shelter funds, and filmed in and around Edmonton, Alberta (which conveniently stands in for Montana and Washington State for a few scenes). Made by a self-described “car freak” who enjoys racing, it’s a facet of the director/co-writer that’s not often seen in his other work (perhaps with the exception of Crash) on such a grand scale. Partially because of the subject matter, and the fact that it received little distribution outside of Canada, Fast Company remains one of his more obscure movies.

In Cronenberg’s insightful DVD commentary, he explained how his movie fits in with his other films and inimitable style of filmmaking. The film may not be as anomalous as it may seem on the surface, capturing his lifelong fascination with cars and racing, as well as his clinical fascination with the mechanics of the sport. Fast Company, according to Cronenberg, was a B-movie with mythical themes, working with archetypes and classic motifs, featuring clearly delineated lines between good and evil. Instead of the Old West, the gunslingers compete on the funny car* racing circuit, which leads up to a western-style showdown. The good guys compete in a white car, while the bad guys appear in a black car (the antagonist is even named “Black.”).

* Fun(ny) Fact: So why are they called “funny” cars anyway, when there isn’t anything particularly humorous about them? One article shines some light on the subject: read it here.

William Smith, normally typecast in villain roles, stars as Lonnie “Lucky Man” Johnson, who’s been around the track quite a few times. A bit older and wiser than his peers, Lonnie inevitably ends up in some scrapes, but comes out on top. He serves as mentor to Billy “The Kid” Brooker, a young, impetuous, up-and-coming racer. The always reliable John Saxon plays Lonnie’s crooked boss Phil Adamson, the film’s true villain. As an executive for the racing team’s sponsor, Fast Company, Adamson values product placement over winning. We see his true character when he makes a play for the new spokeswoman, Candy (Judy Foster) and takes his cut from one of the track managers. In one scene, while flying his private plane, he comments about the racing team on the road below, “They crawl, we fly.” Despite his lofty ambitions, he’s not above playing one side against the other. The most complex character, however, is Lonnie’s archrival Gary “The Blacksmith” Black (Cedric Smith). Black wants to win at practically any cost, along with all the trappings that come with success (he’s especially envious of Lonnie’s fancy trailer). Despite his disdain for Lonnie, there’s a grudging respect for the elder racer. Unlike Adamson, he seems to possess a conscience and remorse about some of the underhanded tactics that are directed against his opponent.

It’s no surprise that the film works best when it’s on the racetrack. Cinematographer Mark Irwin* lends a gritty, documentary-style look to the racing scenes. We get down and dirty with the pit crew, as they attempt to tame a flame-belching race car. A car-mounted camera gives a first-person perspective of driving one of these high-powered, unstable 2,000-horsepower racing vehicles, blazing down the track at 200+ miles per hour. Cronenberg, working from a script by Phil Savath and Courtney Smith added his own touches, incorporating the lingo of real-life racers and insider details about auto racing. In one scene, Billy discusses the fuel mixture, the importance of getting the proper ratio of nitroglycerine to alcohol, and how each racing team has its own formula.

* Fun Fact: In addition to Irwin, Cronenberg noted that he met several crew members, with whom he’s enjoyed a long collaboration with: set designer Carol Spier, costume designer Delphine White, and Terry Burke (sound).

The world of Fast Company extends its black-and-white approach to its depiction of the sexes, with manly men and womanly women, and nothing in-between.* Claudia Jennings (in her final feature film before her untimely death) appears as Lonnie’s long-suffering girlfriend Sammy, who keeps waiting for him to settle down. Jennings lends a magnetic presence to an otherwise underwritten, thankless role. The rest of the women in the film are either ancillary characters or ornaments.**

* Another Fun Fact: Cronenberg originally intended the Adamson character to be played by a woman, which undoubtedly would have given the film a unique dynamic.

** Not So Fun Fact: In his commentary, Cronenberg stated that a wet T-shirt contest (apparently a racetrack staple) was filmed but (in what seems like a wise choice) not included in the final cut.  

(SOME SPOILERS AHEAD!) The filmmakers initially planned a more prosaic (and cheaper) conclusion with a fistfight between Lonnie and Adamson, before opting for a more (literally) explosive ending. While not the most original ending, the fistfight probably would have made more sense. The film establishes that Adamson isn’t above getting his hands dirty to achieve his goals, and the improbable conclusion, as shot, brings Lonnie down to his level. I get that Lonnie’s a “hands on” kind of guy, but I don’t think his tactile approach would include murder.

Fast Company is as shallow as an oil slick on hot tarmac, but achieves what Cronenberg set out to do, reflecting a time and place as he saw it. There’s nothing subtle or subversive about this film, which shows his affection for the racing culture, and is probably as earnest and conventional as Cronenberg gets. It’s not likely to be dissected by cinephiles for hidden layers of subtext. Instead, it’s best enjoyed at the drive-in, preferably in the back of a pickup truck, tossing back a few cold ones (alcoholic or otherwise). If you can’t quite recreate the experience, a reasonable home-grown facsimile will suffice.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The 2nd Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon – Participant Roster

We’re back for round two, with The 2nd Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, running June 14th-16th, and hosted by Yours Truly along with my superb co-host Gill Jacob from Realweegiemidget Reviews. You can find all the details here. So far, we have a fantastic line-up, but there’s plenty of room for more entries.

Important Reminder: This time, we’re doing things a little different, with no duplicate titles (unless said duplicate is part of a larger retrospective post), so grab ‘em while they’re hot. Although this is a “blogathon,” no blog is required to participate, as long as you can provide a link to your article/review. Links to Letterboxd, Facebook, Instagram and the like are acceptable. And remember: Submissions aren’t limited to written reviews/articles. Feel free to submit your vlog or podcast link as well. If it’s Hammer or Amicus related, we’ll list it (Tigon need not apply. Hey, we’ve gotta have some standards.*)! Need more time to think of a topic? No hurry. You have until the blogathon start date, but keep in mind claimed titles are going fast. Not sure what movie/topic to write about? The lists below should get you started:
* Yes, I know Tigon produced some noteworthy movies. Relax!

Still have questions? Drop us a line. You can reach me via email (, Twitter (@barry_cinematic), or by commenting below. You may also contact Gill by commenting on her post, Twitter (@realweegiemidge), or through her blog’s Contact Me page.

Watch the space below, which will be updated periodically:

Participant List:

The Stop Button – The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970)
Pale Writer – Vampire Circus (1972)/Twins of Evil (1971)
Tango in Eden – The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960)/I Monster (1971)
Tales from the Freakboy Zone – Daleks - Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1960)
MovieRob – Danger Route (1967)/Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960)/The Resident (2011)
What The Craggus Saw – Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)/Daleks - Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1960)
Silver Screen Classics - Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (1974)
Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For... – Straight On Till Morning (1972)
Taking Up Room – The Monster Club (1981)
Maniacs and Monsters – The Vampire Lovers (1970)/And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973)/Hammer House of Horror (1980)
Critica Retro – Dr. Morelle: The Case of the Missing Heiress (1949)
Hanley Peterson – The Mummy (1959)
Manor on Movies – Cash on Demand (1961)
A Shroud of Thoughts – Tales from the Crypt (1972)/Dick Barton: Special Agent (1948)
Ernie Fink – Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)/Asylum (1972)
Speakeasy – Plague of the Zombies (1966)
The Oak Drive-In – The Lost Continent (1968)
In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood – The City of the Dead (aka: Horror Hotel) (1960)
Christina Wehner – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Reel Distracted – Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
The Psychotronic Kinematograph - The Terrornauts (1967)
Cinema Essentials – 10 Essential Hammer Horror Films
Watching Forever – The Gorgon (1964)
Diary of a Movie Maniac – What Became of Jack and Jill? (1971)
Realweegiemidget Reviews – An Interview with Judy Matheson (now Jarvis) from the Hammer movies
Cinematic Catharsis – The Land That Time Forgot (1974)/Moon Zero Two (1969)